Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Culturally Normative Behavior

There's something you learn about in psychology called norms. Like other things you learn in psychology, it's both depressing and darkly funny - basically, a norm is any behavior or belief that is so socially acceptable as to be expected. Norms are different than mores - socially expected morality - but like mores have little to do with actual morality. Murder, kidnapping, and medieval chauvinism are the norm in Northern Nigeria just as much as loudly praising God at Applebees is the norm in Albermarle County.

Few films illustrate this horror as well as Hanecke's The White Ribbon. Set in a bucolic German village at the turn of the century, it follows the everyday concerns and foibles of a broad cross-section of society. And how terribly brutal they all are.

Like the Pastor who has his son's hands tied to the bed frame every night, to prevent "impure touching." Or the kindly Doctor who socially and sexually humiliates his loyal housekeeper. Or the Baron who is as clownishly corrupt and inept as every privileged man ever. Hanecke spends a long time on each of these characters, and their victims, giving the viewer a full picture of these men in all their gigantic littleness.


That would be a worthwhile film in itself but The White Ribbon has a broader, and deeper, critique in mind. Soon, the regimented village life is disrupted by a series of pranks. Childish at first but growing more and more malicious, culminating in a tortured parakeet and savagely beaten little boy. Cruelty for its own sake.

It should come as no surprise the children are behind these acts and it gets to the core theme of the film. They act out in petty brutality because that's how they've been socialized by the supposedly civilized adults. It's a sharper satire than merely pointing out the Pastor's abusive parenting or the Baron's exploitation of the villagers. It makes the point that this savagery is deeply woven into what is otherwise considered a civilized society. The parents are shocked, of course, wondering how the little ones could have turned so wicked when so much effort had gone into training them up proper.


Because to every villager, even the few descent ones, the casual brutality exacted on women and children is normal and therefore invisible. The children have learned this brutality well, just not when it is acceptable to indulge in it, which is really what makes their behavior aberrant. Soon they'll have more than enough chance to engage in socially acceptable savagery, as the first World War flares up not in spite of civilized society but because of it. Because all the rules and propriety are nothing but a thin veneer of respectability over what has always been and always will be Darwin's world.

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